The Politically ‘Woke’ and the Protest Pandemic
From Hong Kong to Catalonia, Paris to Santiago, Islamabad to Quito — the world is engulfed in protests. The themes range from social justice, political independence, economic equality, separatist movements and climate change. The demonstrations run the gamut from peaceful marches and civil disobedience —- to riots and extreme acts of violence.
In South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia — the images are the same. Swarms of nonviolent demonstrators carry signs and banners in some cities while masked activists throw rocks and Molotov cocktails in others. There have been police in riot gear, troop deployments, tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and even live rounds of ammunition.
In Chile’s capital, protests erupted in response to a hike in subway fares but the rallies exposed deeper issues of falling wages, soaring costs, substandard public services, and a paltry pension system. In an attempt to quell the demonstrations, there have been claims of police abuse and excessive force that has resulted in over twenty deaths and thousands of injuries.
In the wealthy Catalan region of Northeastern Spain, the drive for independence has thrust the Spanish government into one of the most serious political crises since the death of dictator Francisco Franco back in 1975. In 2017, some 90% of Catalans voted for independence but the referendum was declared unconstitutional and Madrid imposed direct rule. After leaders of the resistance were arrested and imprisoned, Spain has been hit by some of the worst street violence in decades.
In Paris, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests started last year over the rising costs of petrol but quickly morphed into an anti-government, anti-elite, and anti-taxation movement.
The image of the yellow vest, which citizens are required to carry in their vehicle, has come to signify the plight of the working class. Protests have coalesced into mass demonstrations that have included roadblocks, petrol-bombs and attacks on banks, shops and fuel depots.
In Lebanon uprisings were initially triggered by a tax on the popular messaging application ‘WhatsApp’ but like other demonstrations, it revealed deeper issues of government corruption, human rights abuses, and rampant unemployment. Tens of thousands have marched for social and economic reform as well as clean water and electricity. Lebanese protestors have blocked roads and highways in mass sit-in’s seeking a revamp of the entire existing political system.
In Hong Kong, what started as opposition to an extradition bill authorizing the detention and removal of criminal suspects to mainland China, has morphed into a broader demand for democratic reform. As many as a million people have marched in protest of the bill as well as China’s growing influence. One demonstrator has been shot and over 4,500 have been arrested since June. Tensions have taken a more violent turn in recent days as demonstrators have taken over Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University which has turned into veritable a combat zone of rocks and firebombs —- tear gas and rubber bullets.
Clearly, global unrest is mounting, death tolls are rising, and people everywhere are calling for change. All across South America, the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean there is havoc in the streets and disruption to business, trade, commerce, and daily life. The Chilean peso has slid to record lows during the unrest. Spain has been combatting the second highest unemployment rate in the EU. France is facing meager fourth quarter GDP growth. Lebanon is on the brink of an economic crisis, Hong Kong has already slipped into recession, and the drag on the global economy has yet to be tallied.
Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, a professor of Social Change and Conflict at Vrije University in Amsterdam says, “the data shows that the amount of protests is increasing and is as high as the roaring 60s.” The 1960’s saw one of the longest economic expansions in history but what followed should give us pause. The 1970’s was an era of skyrocketing unemployment, slumping economic growth, and a convergence of recessionary forces. It was a punishing decade of collapsing markets, sagging business sentiment, and unrelenting stagflation.
So, is there a correlation between widespread demonstrations and the world economy? A research study entitled, ‘The Economic Impact of Political Instability and Mass Civil Protest,’ conducted by the Centre for Research in Economic Development and International Trade at the University of Nottingham concluded that in the wake of crises like these there is, “an immediate fall in output which is never recovered in the subsequent five years.”
Worldwide discontent does indeed carry an economic cost. Regardless of the validity of the cause — systemic protests, riots, and rebellions put downward pressure on the global economy. And, as we start a new decade on the heels of another unprecedented expansion and in the throes of similar mass unrest, we would be wise to insulate our money from the threat of another lost era.
Gold surged well over 1000% during the 1970’s, and if history does indeed repeat itself — we’ll want to be on the right side of it.
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